Is STAT tone-deaf in accepting PhRMA sponsorship?

Gary Schwitzer is publisher of HealthNewsReview.org.  He tweets as @garyschwitzer and/or by using our project handle @HealthNewsRevu. He will not accept drug or device industry funding for this project.

Maybe it’s just seeing this – again – on the day after the President signed the 21st Century Cures Act, which many smart observers have criticized as a Christmas gift to Pharma.  John Mack’s PharmaGuy newsletter captured some of that sentiment with this headline and image:

pharmaguy-cures-story

 

But STAT News, whose work deserves high praise, continues to accept sponsorship from PhRMA (the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America) in its morning email newsletter.  This is a screenshot of today’s:

stat-phrma-sponsorship

 

I am sure that STAT allows no editorial influence by this or any other sponsor. Their hard-nosed coverage of pharmaceutical industry news is top notch. I just taped a half hour public radio interview yesterday in which I praised STAT’s editorial efforts.

But I do not praise their front office decision to accept this sponsorship deal. It startles me and bothers me every time I see that PhRMA logo on the STAT newsletter. And I think it could raise legitimate questions in discerning readers’ minds.  Journalism ethics dictates that one should strive at all costs to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest. Was it necessary for STAT to enter into this sponsorship deal?  STAT just introduced a premium subscription plan.  I hope that works for them; maybe it will generate enough income so that they wouldn’t feel compelled to swim in the murky waters of the PhRMA sponsorship deal.

There are always options, including “Just say no.”

As highly as I think of STAT’s journalism, if it depends even in part on PhRMA sponsorship, I would rather see them ratchet back and decline such deals.

Certainly PhRMA is thrilled with STAT saying “Yes” –  allowing them to buy their way into regular appearances in the STAT newsletter. This is a foot in the door for an industry to buy juxtaposition to messages that often call their practices into question. It would be understandable if any reader’s head was spinning with thoughts of “What’s going on here?”

I urge others who are bothered by this policy to write to STAT or to leave comments on our site.

I acknowledge that there is a huge cost in producing high quality health/medical/science journalism.

But there is a much bigger cost in any dent in journalistic credibility or public trust.

Note:  This isn’t the first time we’ve mentioned this sponsorship deal.  Trudy Lieberman wrote in May, “Sponsored content gets even more slippery.”

Addendum 5 hours after original post:  When you do the kind of work that we’ve done for 10 years on this site, you grow accustomed to realizing that the stance you’ve taken may not sit well with journalists.  On Twitter today, reactions to this piece from journalists I respect have included:

“Money needs to come from somewhere.” (Me: “Yes, but not from the industry you report on every day.”)

“Doesn’t bother me a bit. Disclose and move on.” (Me: “If only it were that simple. Like take the money and run.”)

“They’re trying to run a business.  You’re scaremongering.”   (Me: “Scaremongering?  This is simply following the old journalistic creed of ‘follow the money.’ Or isn’t that OK to do when you follow the money that fuels news organizations?”)

However, lest you think that no one agreed with our stance, supportive comments on social media included those from editors of two medical journals, a former NIH whistleblower, a former medical center CEO, a leading patient advocate active on social media, health policy experts at Yale and UCSF,  and two bioethicists. In fact, after a day, the only journalists who weighed in on social media all disagreed with me.  But every single one of the non-journalists who reacted on social media did so positively. Perhaps another form of the digital divide.

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Comments (3)

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Caroline Collins

December 16, 2016 at 3:14 am

Scaremongering? The loopy journalist meant pharmascolding. (I hope you can overlook the personal attack, unfounded allegation, and unverified fact that my comment amounts to. At least it isn’t a pitch for my damned wonderful new drug, Enditall®.)
PS I agree with your stance and not with the stances in the comments you quoted. I don’t agree that money needs anything. Stat might need money, though. Disclosing is good, but it doesn’t erase the boost in respectability afforded PHRMA through an association with Stat’s good name. I don’t see how Stat’s trying to run a business justifies selling PHRMA the benefits of advertising on Stat. (I don’t know that running PHRMA’s ads will benefit Stat’s business, but “at least they’re trying.” We all are; some more trying than others.)

PPS I don’t think there’s such thing as a former whistleblower. It’s like calling John Wilkes Booth a former assassin. If you used to get paid to kill people and no longer do, I guess you’re a former hitman. If you killed President Lincoln, you always killed President Lincoln..)

Suzanne Robotti

December 19, 2016 at 8:25 am

I run both MedShadow.org and DESAction.org. The second one was founded 35 years ago due to the disasterous side effects and long-term effects of the drug diethylstilbestrol. The first was founded by me 4 years ago to educate the public that all medicines have side effects and in many cases the long-term risks are not known. We will not accept $ from pharma — if we did, we could add staff, increase our good work. But then we’d need the money and that’s not a position I am willing to be in — to have to accept money from pharma. And the only way to stay independent is to never start.

Gary Schwitzer

December 19, 2016 at 11:27 am

Caroline & Suzanne,
Thanks for your comments. As I suggested in the addendum to this blog post, this sponsorship may reflect a deeper disconnect between journalists and the audience they serve than the messengers care to acknowledge.

Perhaps I also should have acknowledged two other things. As publisher of this project, I struggled without funding for 19 months in 2013-4 and was facing almost imminent shutdown. I could have turned to many sources of funding who were happy to have their name on or alongside our project. But accepting drug company sponsorship was a path I wouldn’t consider for a heart beat. Secondly, in 1990 I resigned as the head of the CNN medical news unit – in part – because of how management handled sponsorship by a leading drug company. Friends and colleagues couldn’t believe I’d walk away from that job. So I don’t just talk the talk…I’ve walked the walk. And I walked right out of CNN over ethical issues.

Gary Schwitzer
Publisher